People have very strong opinions about this show. Among popular anime, I see the most variation of opinion about this one. Some people totally love it and some people really, really hate it. And I can understand all of it. This show is one of the greatest isekai animes ever brought to life, but at times is so artistically misguided it’ll make you wonder why you’re watching it. It is a strange experience.
But that’s why it experiences so much success. It’s a very unique kind of show. Its great achievement is that while so bizarrely impossible, it is almost completely relatable. As we progress through the seasons this lessens a good deal, but from the first season through most of the second, it will touch your heart and wrangle with your emotions in a strange and unearthly way that makes it unforgettable. In our anime world, it is a fixture and rightly should be. Every anime fan, from yeah-I’ve-seen-Naruto to NEET otaku (I love you all equally) should see this show.
There’s very little to dislike about these characters. Their number is not so many to make it confusing, and all are pretty easy to remember and identify. This isn’t the last time I’ll say this in this review, but as you get on towards S3 this this begins to be more of an issue. Most of the characters featured in S3 aren’t very memorable in fact, apart from the main cast we’re familiar with. But that aside. I’ll go through a few of the best in a little extra detail, and touch on some of the other memorable characters that we encounter in our travels.
But first some commonalities among nearly all the characters. First, they’re all fairly typical anime characters. We all know the type. Early highschool age, encountering difficulties in life and often dealing with them in the wrong ways, experiencing support and friendship throughout, all while meeting new people and having new experiences. It’s the twist on all that typicalness, which I’ll explain more as we progress here, that’s part of what makes this show so interesting.
This “typicalness” is what brings me to another commonality, one that’s silly but is so frustratingly apparent in the show that I have to mention it this prominently. These people are all screamers. With the exception of Sinon (the first of many exceptions for her!), all of these people stereotypically scream during combat. I know, this is a typical anime thing, but it happens so much in this show among so many characters it’s almost too much. Nay, it is too much. I tire of it in this show. It makes the fight scenes very frustrating to watch. It seems like a small thing, but it’s so overdone it makes an impact on our experience. Now you’re all are going to go watch this and notice this every time and it’s going to ruin it for you, so I’m sorry in advance!
But most important of all, the relatability of these characters is remarkable. Almost every characters has experiences that we viewers can relate to. Well, I guess Sinon’s experiences are the exception again. But even there, if we can’t relate to the exact experience, we can understand her struggle afterwards. But that’s the very thing about relatability in this show. Who could ever really have these experiences? I know people are still looking to develop these kinds of immersive VR experiences, but so far nothing comes close to this fantasy we see in SAO. You’d think we wouldn’t be able to share anything with these characters in that sense.
But it’s in this fantastical experience that we actually do find a path to relate to these characters. Almost every anime fan has played video games of some kind, MMORPGs or otherwise. And while this show steps into a fantastical gaming realm with the events of S1, we can all pretty clearly imagine what these characters experience. It’s remarkable that the fantastical can give us a way to sympathize with characters.
But consider, this is pretty much what we do with anime anyway. No characters in anime are real in any sense. I speak a lot about how anime can be so very human while being so very non-human. SAO does a particularly good job playing with this concept. We’re being shown characters who are playing a full-dive game, struggling to get away from true reality, choosing to immerse themselves in the beauty of a strange and different world to simply escape or find their true selves or, perhaps most importantly, to experience a new world. This is extremely relatable to all of us as anime fans. SAO gets at this idea in a way no other anime does. This makes its characters that much more memorable.
Kirito! Kazuto Kirigaya, the Black Swordsman, is one of the most recognized heroes in all animedom. And he rightly deserves that recognition. The design of this character is amazing. I presume the original light novel author had a fairly typical MMORPG game character type in mind with the long coat, high collar, and his sword at his back, but the author did not end up with anything we could ever remember as ordinary! Let no one ever forget the rush we feel when Kirito reaches behind his head and unsheathes that amazing black blade! The black all over is a nice touch. While you can easily imagine creating such an avatar in a game, it totally makes him unique here! We never see anyone approaching anything like his appearance in any of the seasons. Hell I know people like to joke about how his harness clasp is in the shape of the infamous and faddy “fidget spinner” before such a thing even existed! From big things like his black color palette to little things like that, everything about this design is remarkable and memorable.
Yes he’s a screamer too. If you didn’t already know it, this is the same guy, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, that plays Bell Cranel in Is It Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (I’ve always hated that title). And he screams and hollers during his battles (in both these shows) more than the girls do. He’s a prolific VA. I think he won an award for his performance for Kirito in 2012 (don’t quote me on that). But I will always hold this screaming against him. I guess you could say it makes the character even more memorable. I find it frustrating that I can’t disassociate Kirito from Bell Cranel for this reason, but then again the association makes them both memorable in that sense too.
People love to say SAO is a harem anime. And despite making an effort to see it otherwise in a recent rewatching, I cannot argue with this conclusion. I think it wasn’t necessarily intended as such initially. You have Asuna and Liz and Silica, and I guess we could count Sachi, all appearing in the first half of S1. But Liz and Silica are such minor characters at that point, they hardly give you that harem anime feel. They both appear to be in love with Kirito, Liz more obviously so than Silica, but it’s not this ultra competitive situation that you so often associate with harem genre shows. Sachi’s brief storyline is difficult, and I hardly even want to bring it up when discussing such a goofy thing as a harem. She’s unquestionably in love with Kirito, but she is probably the most heartfelt tragic loss we experience in the Aincrad situation. I can’t bring her into this discussion in that sense. We will let her rest in peace.
But once you get into the second half of season one, certainly season two, and the over-the-top displays we see in season 3, you are forced to conclude that this is a harem anime, with the finger pointing squarely at Kirito in the center. I’m not even going to go into that nonsense in S3. Or the second half of S1, with Sugu dealing with her irl love for Kazuto and dragging it into her online life as Leafa. In hindsight, it’s the addition of Sinon that really pulls this anime into the harem realm. She hits this story like a ton of bricks. I’ll speak of her more later on, but to wrap up this discussion of Kirito and his harem (ahem), it’s her love story with him that squarely puts this show into that realm. She is the first true rival to Asuna, both in the show, to Kirito, and to our hearts. I guess you can tell I really like Sinon.
But if there’s two things I will gladly associate with the hero Kirito, first it’s his courage to stick his neck out, as they say, and take things on by himself. He’s humble enough to admit there are things he probably can’t do without help, and he rarely refuses help. But I think if it came down to it, we’re supposed to believe he would’ve cleared Sword Art Online by himself one day. Indeed he states at the end of S1 that it’s his goal to clear all 100 floors of New Aincrad. He’s a very good person in this sense, never flouting his strength in front of anyone or imagining himself superior, and you can understand why everyone around him would like him. He’ll even beat himself up when he thinks he’s mistakenly thought himself too proud. But above all else, it’s Kirito’s love, for others, for friends, and most prominently, for Asuna, that cements Kirito’s status as a hero.
I know of few moments in anime more dear to my heart than the brief few episodes when Kirito and Asuna decide to get married inside the game, move to a beautiful little cabin in a peaceful area of Aincrad, and ultimately adopt their daughter Yui. As desperate as their situation is in that game, this brief highlighting of this peaceful life is overwhelming. The whole thing is so heartwarming it almost hurts. You know how people like to say dramatically that you can experience so much happiness you could die? This is as close to that kind of experience as you’ll get in anime. In my opinion, it’s this brief interlude in S1 that undergirds SAO’s popularity. This situation is so beautiful, I can’t imagine any viewer not straining in their heart wishing for such a thing. Kirito’s love for Asuna, and her love for him, is so pure and pretty. When she wants to ride on his shoulders and he says that’s childish, she knows it. They’re both as happy and untroubled as children. It makes you cry. I hate to bring up the harem topic again, but those two are so sweet together it makes you question whether this anime can really be harem genre. When you see them alone together, everything is about them. They make their own world, in a way. Whether you know anything about anime or not, whether you’ve ever watched anime before or not, your heart will not go untouched by these two.
Asuna is one of the most beautiful characters ever conceived in anime. And it’s more than just her appearance! Her appearance is quite beautiful, don’t get me wrong–we get the least fanservice around her that we do anyone, which I’m glad for, but she is astounding in all of her sexier moments. It’s just the person that is Asuna Yuuki that’s so beautiful. Haruka Tomatsu has voiced all kinds of characters, but when she voices MCs she shines the brightest. Can I mention Zero Two without sending chills up your spine as you remember that amazing voice? Haunting and startling, her voice is so full of life as Asuna. It’s amazing. Again, while her voice and mannerisms are quite typical, it’s the best kind of typical. Screaming in battle aside.
I could go on about any number of aspects of Asuna’s character. I could study her strength and its sources. I could dive into her representation of the escapist or the first-time gamer. A really nice focus for an in-depth character review would be why she’s a perfect match for Kirito. Someone could have a lot of fun with that topic, and it would be a beautiful experience to explore it. But for the sake of just experiencing Asuna as Asuna, without any academic expounding added to it (and for the sake of brevity!) I will leave it at that. She is Asuna Yuuki, and is the only reason Kirito ultimately makes it through all his trials. When we learn more about her backstory during the Yuuki arc, the writers try to make her more heroic. But they didn’t need to in my mind. She was already a hero. She is a great among greats.
People’s opinions really get fired up once we introduce Sinon. For one thing, she represents the greatest divergence from the core of SAO: swords. I’ll get into that a little more under the Story section below. But on top of that, as I mentioned above, Sinon is the first real challenge to Asuna for Kirito’s heart. And how could she not be? Arguably the most visually beautifully character in SAO, and voiced by one of my favorite VAs all time, Miyuki Sawashiro (Monogatari, Durarara!!, among others), she is perhaps the most endearing of all the characters in the series. How could Kirito not fall for her? Aside, I believe it speaks well of his character that he doesn’t completely fall for her. She can capture the heart of anybody as easily as she could put a bullet through it!
While people’s strong opinions about her all tend to converge at this romantic competition point, I think it’s the semi-extreme aspects of her character design that give rise to people’s emotions. First, you have an extremely troubled girl that we can all sympathize with. But interestingly, “empathize” is too strong a word here. Most of us haven’t ever experienced anything like what she went through. Imagine her situation at eleven years old, in the real world. Could you have pulled that trigger once? How about twice? Three times? It’s so shocking it sends our brains into disarray. We don’t even want to think about that. Her character is injected with this hugely powerful dose of shock value when we first learn about her past, and it hugely affects this series. It puts the deaths from Aincrad in a different perspective. The writers go a little heavy with this aspect in S2, particularly with Kirito, but nonetheless it gives us a great deal of material for comparative thought.
Second, Sinon’s character challenges reality once more. I go on and on about anime versus reality, so without going into it too much again, I’ll simply sum it up by saying this. We can hardly imagine what we’d feel if we slashed at another person, or character, with a sword, regardless of the situation, as such an action is very foreign to us. We only ever encounter it in games at this point in human history. But we damn well feel our heart rate go up at the very thought of pulling that trigger, the immense mental shock of the power of the gunshot report, and the explosion of blood the would inevitably result. This all would be much worse if the target ended up dying as a result. And in Sinon’s case, that’s exactly what happened. Respect for weapons is a difficult concept, either in games or reality, one that must be learned by experience. And it’s here in Sinon’s character that SAO forces us to confront that necessary and very real respect. There are few more powerful experiences at confronting reality than the sound of a gunshot, particularly when it originates at the end of your own arm. This is an extremely powerful part of Sinon’s character, and in my opinion extremely well done, especially in the context of this series which is so much about confronting and coming to terms with reality. And it absolutely ignites strong responses in people. Such powerful art almost always will.
Another point of contention around Sinon I very much sympathize with is fanservice. As most of you know, I believe that the idea of “fanservice” is crass and not artistically interesting and therefore is unwanted in such a beautiful art form as anime. That being said, there is a distinction in my mind between “fanservice” and highlighting physical beauty. Briefly, the sight of Asuna as she lays herself on top of Kirito or Sinon’s cutaways at the sides of her outfit are less fanservice than a means to prod at our senses and emote response, more or less. In these limited amounts, such things are effective at enhancing our view of these characters. The degree of sexiness (oo, degree of sexiness, very intellectual) will vary between context, genre, and scene as well, as it should, without ever being so much that…yeah. Such is acceptable as an artistic touch. Physical beauty is absolutely worth highlighting, appropriately. But viewing Sinon from behind as she lays out for her sniper shot, her shorts riding unnaturally low on her backside, etc., are strictly fanservice, and cross a line in this artistic sense, in my opinion. It detracts from her character, just as Leafa’s boob show takes a lot away from her character. To sidetrack for a moment, Leafa’s character is almost completely overwhelmed by this aspect. I needn’t even detail her first appearance in Underworld in S3. The point would have been made adequately enough without that event. Sure Leafa is gorgeous, and that part of her beauty can be admired for that. But when that overwhelms her character, you have something less human and more simply the “object” people speak of in these discussions, and that’s not what anime should be. And while Leafa is the first time we get heavily into the fanservice realm, the writers take the full dive, pun intended, into that area with Sinon. If Sinon wasn’t so powerful a character otherwise, this would have negatively affected her character in the same manner as it affects Sugu.
The last point which makes Sinon controversial is the interesting role she plays in this series. Remember back to the end of S1. You’re already getting the feeling that the show is losing its way. I’ll get into this more in the story section below, but Sinon has an interesting impact at the point she’s introduced. She both refocuses the show and changes it into something else. She allows the show to continue without being repetitive but takes into an area that doesn’t feel like it should really go and still be “Sword Art Online.” This is a very interesting part of this series. And as far as the character Sinon is concerned, this is an excellent bit of work by the writers. Regardless of any opinion about the direction in which Sinon takes the series, she has a major impact, and SAO would not be what it is without her. Such a character design deserves admiration on all levels.
I said above that Sinon is perhaps the most endearing of the characters in the series. Right up there with her is Yuuki. If Sinon makes us confront reality and death in a very different way than the events of Aincrad do, then Yuuki makes us confront it in a more familiar but much unhappier way. Powerlessness is big theme in SAO, and at no point is powerlessness clearer to the viewer than while watching Yuuki die. It’s so extremely sad. I remember watching this series through this arc, and watching the story evolve between Yuuki and Asuna, and I was doing okay. I knew what was going to happen, and as sad as it was, I was going to bear it and hold up. And I did, right up to the moment that Nori-chan, Yuuki’s guild mate in the Sleeping Knights, broke character and cried her mind out as Yuuki died in Asuna’s arms. I held out no more. My heart broke, and so I will remember Yuuki forever.
Yuuki has a handful of inexplicable things about her character. I get the role she serves, but I’m not really sure why we needed to go this route in the show. For one thing, she’s like a Sachi version 2.0. She appears, lots of heartfelt events pass, and then she dies and is gone. Her role is quite obviously to enable us to focus in on Asuna, both in-game and irl. I get that, but why make her so similar to Sachi and the events surrounding her? It’s a question that, with limited pondering, I cannot discover the answer to. Next, she’s obviously meant to be featured as another member of the MC group. How do I know this? Because you don’t hire Aoi Yuuki to be a character’s VA without the character having some major role. Aoi-san is one of the most prolific VAs out there, even back in 2014, almost always voicing characters that either are the MC or directly surround the MC. By then she had already had major roles such as Madoka in Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Diane in The Seven Deadly Sins, among others. Most notably since then she’s voiced such memorable characters as Tanya von Degurechaff in The Saga of Tanya the Evil, Tsuyu Asui in My Hero Academy, and Tamaki Kotatsu in Fire Force. If you associate anything with these characters, it’s that there’s not much similarity between any of their voices. Which brings me to my third point of confusion about Yuuki. She sounds like a young boy. If I’m not mistaken, she refers to herself with the pronoun “boku” as well, usually used by young males. But she’s quite clearly female by every account we have of her. I can only assume this slight masculinity was done intentionally by the author, evidenced further by the offer of marriage she makes (jokingly, I guess) to Asuna. Perhaps this was just meant as a character trait for Yuuki, and amounts to no more than that. But it’s noticeable enough in the show that you wonder if there’s more to it than that.
Tragic death is one of the surest ways of ensuring a character is memorable. But a character can only be tragic if they are sufficiently developed and interesting. Whether she’s the strongest swordsman in ALO or not (highly debatable), she is surely Asuna’s dearest friend, and her circumstances of exploring MMORPG worlds via her Medicuboid with other terminally ill patients is very sad. It might seem a little overdramatic, and I guess it is, but it’s handled very well, and ultimately you feel a great deal of sadness and loss from her. I was happy to hear that her good friend Shiune was recovering. That and the beautiful gathering at her death puts a nice cap on that very tragic arc.
Speaking of the Medicuboid, this is the launching point for the beginning of the end of SAO. As much as some people dislike S2, I loved all of S1 and 2 up to that point. I was so excited when S3 was announced and premiered. I had not seen simulcasts for SAO ever until that point. And initially I followed along in S3 and mostly understood what was happening. And then it kept dragging on. And on. And on. Perhaps I’ll speak more of this later. I need to finish up this section on characters first! And without question, the central character of S3 is not, at any point, Kirito or Asuna, but instead Alice Zuberg, also known as Alice Synthesis Thirty, order of Integrity Knights, Underworld.
I don’t like this character. She’s visually amazing, but that’s all that interests me about her. The overt Alice in Wonderland theme doesn’t do anything for me. As much as I love Ai Kayano, particularly as strong female characters like Darkness (KonoSuba), Saori Takebe (Girls und Panzer), Shiro (No Game No Life), and Inori (Guilty Crown), this character felt like a copy of Saber from the Fate/ series. Saber actually has a different VA, despite what you might think from watching/listening to S3, adding to the Saber comparison. And don’t get me wrong, Ai-san’s performance is not what I dislike. I love the deep and threatening voice she uses. It’s the Saber-feel and ultimately the lack of development. Here I think the authors let their creation take on too much of a life of its own, even if that was the intent. Alice is an artificial creation, different from an NPC or AI, originating in a “lab,” as it were, and germinated in a virtual world. I’ll leave the ethical or metaphysical topics surrounding this for other times, places, and people. But the result is a near empty character. Her only life is as Eugeo’s sister in Underworld, which was ordinary and unremarkable, if peaceful, up to the point when she barely touches the forbidden Dark Territory. From there she’s hauled away as a tragic character until she reappears as the fierce but brainwashed Alice Synthesis Thirty. She’s so underdeveloped at this point that in the middle of the first arc of S3 we spend at least two entire episodes with her sitting on a ledge with Kirito just talking about whatever, hopelessly trying to develop her character. The authors left themselves no way to win here. This character was going to be the artificial fluctlight thingamajig that this entire Underworld was created for as an experiment, adorned with really pretty armor, a beautiful voice, and a predictable budding love for Kirito, and that’s it. The love for Kirito thing is so old at that point. I really, really, really didn’t enjoy that silly display between Alice and Asuna once she arrives on the scene. It felt very out of character for both of them, despite the minimal development for Alice. Certainly for Asuna, who can take care of herself without stooping to glare at someone who is less a rival for her lover than Sinon. And it detracted from the heartfelt reunion between Asuna and Kirito. What a mess.
Eugeo is the more interesting character in S3. Nobunaga Shimazaki is not a new VA, appearing as the MC in major shows such as Parasyte and Date A Live, but he hadn’t done anything as weighty as SAO had grown to be by the year 2018. He does a great job. And Eugeo himself? Eugeo’s role can be summed up in this: quick, name another male character in SAO!
Most of you probably came up with Klein (I love Klein and his bushido!), Death Gun, or maybe Agil (my dude) or Heathcliff. If you did better than that in less than five seconds, put it in the comments below, because I bet no one can! But you see a little more into Eugeo’s role now. No, there’s no BL thing going on here! But Kirito never really has a male friend that can compare with his female friends. It’s easy to overlook, but once you start to notice that, it feels really weird to think about. Yeah Klein and Agil are great comrades, but they’re both significantly older than Kirito too. This is the first guy that Kirito can really share anything with. They have a rip-roaring time of it too, even if it’s overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding their quest to find Alice. They do things guys do together! That’s about as unusual for SAO as a sunbathed wedding would be in Berserk. It’s a nice shift, filling in a spot that we hadn’t really even noticed was unfilled until Eugeo came along.
And then Eugeo goes away. It wasn’t a sad moment for me. I didn’t feel like I did when Sachi or Yuuki passed away. I felt angry. The best part of S3 was born out of this moment. Kirito took up his second sword, Swordland played once more in the background, and he murdered Administrator. We hadn’t really seen a vengeful Kirito before. We know he killed the three Laughing Coffin members in anger, and you have the scene with Oberon, but we’d never actually seen him kill to avenge the death of someone who’s life was taken right in front of him. So in that sense, Eugeo, even in death, revealed even more about Kirito’s character to us.
The biggest thing I dislike about S3 is the number of characters. I know Kirito’s academic acquaintances pretty well from the first two seasons, but it was still confusing with the addition of Rinko Koujiro. Is she the one mentioned at the very end of S2? I can’t remember now. Some woman’s name is mentioned and Kirito freezes in fear. But I forget the details. Anyway, there’s also a lot of those supporting character maintaining the Rath thing. It’s impossible to keep up with all of them. The personification of the Cardinal system was kind of fun to encounter, after all we’d been through with that thing. Quinella. The Administrator, as she called herself. She’s probably the most beautiful character ever drawn in SAO. I like her beyond this part of her though. She provides a representation to us of all the frustration mixed with gratitude that gamers feel towards admins in MMORPGs. Yeah she’s a nutjob, but we get it that admins are nutjobs…I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Maybe! It’s kind of fun to think about her in that context. All those Dark Army characters add hella lotta confusion too, them and all their individual battles with the handful of remaining Integrity Knights.
That gives me a good transition to villains! I won’t spend too much time on them, as mostly they exist as foils for Kirisuna & Co. The Dark Emperor Vecta is probably the most confusing of these characters. He’s the leader of the assault team on the Rath Ocean Turtle, and supposedly was a high-ranking player in GGO, but I don’t even remember his GGO status being explained in the show. Everything gets too convenient right through there, especially with PoH’s reappearance serving as the catalyst to awaken the comatose Kirito. Backing up in time, Death Gun is probably the most interesting bad guy. Quite simply, he more or less represents that group of bad guys that exists in all MMORPGs who think they’ve discovered some great outlet in life where they can “pretend” they’re murderous brigands. Everyone hates those people in such games! And what’s more, everyone knows that doing those kinds of things in a game is revealing about such people in real life, and it’s always disturbing. But here we get a dose of relatability again. For those of us who’ve spent any time in MMORPGs, and especially if you were among the top players, we’ve fought those people, and we know what they’re like. And Death Gun’s character incapsulates all that for us, and we feel a great deal of satisfaction at his defeat at Kirito’s hand. Plus I think he was the inspiration for a later Star Wars character. I’ll let you guess who that is! There’s definitely a Star Wars connection to SAO, and I’ll get into that a little more later. I’m not even going to go into Heathcliff and Oberon. I get the role Heathcliff plays, so it is what it is. Oberon is just a bad guy, and everyone universally knows it. Though we do get another listen at Takeshito Koyasu’s royal voice (Roswaal in Re:Zero, Dio in Jojo, etc.). You feel no remorse for what Kirito does to him.
But overall, if it weren’t for the near miss with Alice and the explosion in the number of characters in S3, I’d give SAO’s characters a ten out of ten. Each of the core group has their own special beauty and relatability, despite, as I mentioned, being something as unrelatable as video game characters. Hey I bet you didn’t notice I slipped in a “Kirisuna” up there! It’s a very apt name, and says a lot about these two and their relationship. How, ultimately, these two are Sword Art Online, as the last scene of the final season leaves us in no doubt of.
If I had to characterize the artwork, I would say it is both very typical and very unusual. It’s hard to describe. It looks very anime-ish, but the shapes of the eyes, cheeks, jawlines, and body shapes feel a bit unusual. I think this feeling of uniqueness is more important than anything being obviously unique about the art. I can’t say I’ve ever seen any other anime where the art has this kind of feeling.
One defining trait for this anime’s art that we can put our finger on is the high glossiness. This effect is not as pronounced in S1. It becomes much more apparent in S2, and then S3 is about as glossy as you’ll ever see anywhere. I will make a small distinction and say “glossy” means something different than what I might usually describe as “shiny.” I can think of any number of anime where the art is really bright and pretty like “shiny” might describe. I just finished the review of Citrus recently, so that’s chiefly in my mind at this point. Fairy Tail, very shiny in a sense. But I’ve never seen this all over glossy look, almost glasslike. You see lots of very glassy eyes (Violet Evergarden, The Quintessential Quintuplets, lots of examples) but usually you don’t see that kind of glassy/glossy effect on everything. That’s something I can definitely point to as pretty unique to SAO.
I have one big quibble about the characters’ artwork. Why on earth did they choose to change the MCs’ appearances to the impish fairy-look with the tiny bodies and pointed ears? And not only that, but they keep them that way for the vast majority of the rest of the series! SAO’s characters are most recognizable from the Aincrad arc of S1. Then we don’t ever see those avatars again. Yeah Kirito’s S3 avatar is similar. But we never see Asuna in the red and white again (one of the movies I think she has something similar, but I’m avoiding the movies for this review). Instead we get this Aqua-like thing with the blue hair and teal-themed outfit that just never works for me. That continually frustrates me the further I watch into this show. I don’t care for her super frilly avatar in Underworld either. She’s great in her original design, and of course when we see her in the real world. I’m not a fan of the super pointy ears and the blue hair on her.
The scenery in this anime is very well handled. It tends to play a more important role than in most anime. For one thing, exploration is a big part of these MMORPGs the characters find themselves in, not in a game-quest way but in the sense that these are big, amazing worlds with lots of interesting climates and landscapes. It’s all very beautifully drawn. But even beyond that visual part, the surroundings are often used to great effect within the story. Think of the idyllic log cabin and its surroundings. It’s so beautiful it’s hard to know how to describe it, and it greatly enhances the effect of that brief honeymoon section in S1. One great example I like to point to in this regard is the scene between Asuna and her mom. Asuna gets her stodgy mom to try the Amusphere and enter the ALO world with her, and they meet in this log cabin, Asuna’s home in the New Aincrad. All Asuna has to do is walk her mom to an open window and open it to the snowy outside world. As she looks out and speaks her mind, her mom cries. We can imagine any number of causes why her mom cries. We can’t know exactly what her mom is thinking. But it’s all brought on by this simple effect of looking out the window of this pretty, homey house, into the cold beauty of snowfall in a forest. It will stir your heart in a strange way. If you took away the scenery here, you don’t have anywhere near the same effect.
The action sequences are so-so in this show. To have a great deal of action, I can’t point to it as any great example of action anime. Now, it could be that all the screaming heretofore mentioned affects my senses during action sequences, but I doubt it could color them all so negatively that I would overlook some great quality in the action. It’s a little bit ordinary, and a little bit simple. Often it has that big blur feel, where it’s obvious it’s an action sequence but the exact actions themselves are difficult to discern. Instead it’s just a big mess of motion. I can hardly blame animators for this too much. I’m sure it makes action sequences easier to deal with in the animation sense. But while you have the Demon Slayers and the Akame ga Kills of the world out there, you lose a few points for these kinds of action sequences.
Still, the quality of this artwork cannot be overstated. SAO artwork is SAO style, period. Anytime you can create something unique in art like this, where it embodies so much of the work as a whole, it is a great achievement.
The storyline overall is quite clever. Isekai can take all kinds of forms, as we all know. And while this isn’t isekai in the strictest sense, it shares that feature that our characters find themselves in a game environment with game controls and game features, etc. Usually that’s just kind of shamelessly there in isekai, and often is confusing for that reason. It shouldn’t be there just because you’re in another world! But in SAO, those other worlds of course really are games! So it feels normal to have player levels, lots of menus, quests, kill drops, item sets, MP, XP, etc. So it’s kind of weird right off the bat that we the viewer accept all these fantastical features as “normal.”
Perhaps more interesting in this regard is the idea of virtual reality. This is far too expansive a subject for this review. And, in my opinion, the writers themselves delve too deeply into. It’s interesting to consider through S1 and 2, and the beginning of S3, that these worlds are created by programmers and our characters can enter them and live in them and exist in them. Whether they just want the game experience itself or they’re escaping Earthly reality or using it therapeutically, they can break away from our world and dive into a different world. But by the time we’re deep into S3, and this whole idea of creating “beings” in worlds that “are as real as ours” is a little too much of a concept for these writers to handle, and it gets distracting at the least. Alice takes over S3 because of how important she is to the Underworld project, and it gets in the way of the show. The writers choose to make something too overt that was initially subtle and interesting. It’s interesting because this is similar to what we seek in anime, a different view of a different world, and all that goes into that. But once this concept breaks off into “where does reality end/begin?” and “is one more real than another?” the show feels like it’s taking itself too seriously, and it isn’t very interesting anymore. I hold that against S3.
The key word in “Sword Art Online” is “sword.” The obvious question therefore hangs before like Damocles’ sword: why diverge into guns in S2? In a series about fantasy games with swords, guns are the last thing you’d think to introduce. As they say, don’t bring a sword to a gunfight…or something like that. I can argue for three reasons why the writers chose to take this route.
First, how many MMORPGs have you played where you only fight with a sword? Your answer is zero. How many MMORPGs have you played where you have at least used a ranged weapon? Your answer is pretty much all of them. So you’re a budding SAO fan, and you’re sitting there through S1, and you’re feeling real good watching Kirito beat up Oberon, and feeling pretty good about Asuna and Kirito finally meeting each other in the real world, and then it suddenly occurs to you, like someone rudely turning on a bright ass light in your dark ass room: where’s the guns?? You think to yourself, I play games, and that’s part of how I relate to this series. You think to yourself, I play games, but most of them have guns, and almost none of them are only about swords. Where’s the BFG?? Suddenly SAO starts to feel a little distant.
Then S2 comes out, and right at the end of Ep1 we see this beautiful, cold girl laid out on a ledge calling out range markers to her ground team below, peering through the scope of the baddest rifle you ever saw. And you think to yourself, I’m happy to see everyone from SAO again. And you think to yourself, this shit got guns now! It feels like a real MMORPG experience! SAO starts to feel more relatable again.
So that’s the point. It’s a natural progression. An anime about MMORPGs, at the core, gets into guns. It absolutely makes sense for this to happen. And what’s more, they do it in the best possible way. For not only does Kirito forcefully drag swords back into the picture with his choice of gameplay style in GGO, but he does so in homage to one of the most remarkable sword-centered tales ever told: Star Wars! What could possibly thrill the hearts of worried SAO fans more than the sight of Kirito with a lightsaber? Interesting side note, two of the most fascinating sword legends in the world, the lightsaber-centered Star Wars and the sword-legend-heavy Authurian legends, appear in SAO. For those that don’t know, Star Wars is heavily inspired by Japanese sword legends and filmmaking. Look up about how George Lucas developed his stories. Its origins are much more Japanese than most people know.
I know there are some people who really didn’t like this about S2, but to me, and I presume most SAO fans, or anybody that knows anything about the Star Wars film franchise, this is an epic evolution for the series. East and West meet a handful of times in SAO already, and this is one of best of those moments. It takes SAO to a whole new level. I love this aspect of S2, and I love how the series is revived through this.
Lastly, guns expose us to reality in a very shocking way. I mentioned this above, but if you’ve ever heard gunshots, you’ll know how impactful that is. The infamous “shellshock” of WWI and the modern understanding of PTSD all stem from exposure to these types of impactful experiences. While I don’t want to wade into all that here, it suffices to say that guns are a powerful reminder of reality. It’s a strange kind of concept, and more than a little ironic, that something designed for destruction can make us so cognizant of peace. Indeed, as scarred as Sinon is by her real world experience with a gun, she uses GGO as therapy for that trauma. It’s quite clever of the authors to mix this unusual part of reality into this series that plays so much with the idea of reality. Sinon is even recommends a real gun, an FN Five-Seven, to Kirito in the weapons shop when he first arrives (pretending to be a girl!). Another aspect of this is that guns are a little more fantastical to the Japanese than they are to most Western cultures. So while heavily relating to reality, they still have a very fantastical feel in some ways. Irony abounds, and art transcends!
So I’m a big fan of that turn of events. I know there’s a spinoff series for GGO, but I don’t want to bring that into the mix here. We’ll stick with the core SAO storyline for now. Anyway, it feels a little rough when we’re suddenly back in the ALO environment after the Sinon arc ends. It would be really bothersome if it wasn’t handled so effectively with the development of Yuuki’s character. That whole sequence both feels very out of place and quite amazing all at the same time. It’s a giant sidetrack from what feels like SAO, yet it perfectly contributes to the story in the end. Indeed, it provides our first view of the Medicuboid, which of course we see another iteration of in S3.
Season 3…er, I don’t like it overall. As mentioned, the whole story feels like it’s beginning to take itself too seriously instead of just being what it originally was. And it gets complex with all the characters. And, above all, Kirito disappears for a huge chunk of it. As it drags on through the first half, it gets pretty tiresome even though he’s featured so prominently. I mentioned the two-plus episode sequence where nothing happens but conversation between him and Alice. I don’t care what they were talking about, that was a disaster. But once he goes comatose in the game, and continues in that state episode after episode, I really started to lose interest. I felt like this was damaging the series. Kirito goes into a coma twice in S3, once in reality and once in the game. I guess something could have been developed out of this, but it ends up just being repetitive and tiresome. Once Kirito came out of his coma, I felt the SAO rush once more. I was happy. But then something started to become abundantly clear, and frustrated me once more into dislike for S3.
Once Kirito awoke, I anticipated the dual-wielding whirlwind of vengeance to begin. Kirito and his friends, virtually gods in this Underworld environment, would enforce their will on the forces of evil and bring peace to this world once and for all. Initially it looked like that’s what was about to happen. But it was not so. Instead, I got another iteration of a very tired theme in anime. Main character is super strong, but suffers setbacks, doubts himself, and actually isn’t as strong as we all were led to believe, then he screams and strains and overcomes it anyway and more or less wins the battle. Okay, yes, Kirito is often confronted with situations that his pure strength alone cannot overcome. That’s a valid element in this story. What’s not acceptable to my mind is how powerful his character, and the characters of his friends, are portrayed to be at this point, and yet how weak they seem when suddenly it counts the most. What’s up with Asuna being on the verge of death for three or four of those shows near the end of the War of Underworld arc? She’s in a goddess’ account in the game! Just the way that sounds should count for something! We’re more or less led to believe she could raze all of the Dark Territory. That’s definitely not what we get. This underwhelming result is pretty typical of what happens with each original character as they enter this battle. Sitting and watching and knowing that this was the end of the SAO series, I would have much preferred to see our heroes triumph more emphatically. This weird situation where they almost seem weaker than ever before is extremely frustrating to sit through.
S3 doesn’t ruin SAO for me, but it tries. I do not like how it ends, with Kirito and Asuna and Alice reappearing in Underworld and fighting off some giganticore of a monster thing in space outside the planet they were on not long before. It’s just messy and weird. I do like that we get to see Kirito and Asuna there together at the end. I almost would have preferred to see them together in the real world, and I definitely would have preferred Alice to not be there, but I get it. For if there’s any constant in this show that should be highlighted, it’s the enduring love between Kirito and Asuna. SAO would not be what it is without it. And even with the interference of S3, we are ultimately left with this most important part of SAO in our memories. I like to think that the entire SAO saga is about the love between Kirito and Asuna. Kirisuna will forever live in our hearts.
There’s a lot of overarching themes in SAO that I could discuss. Most are more overt, such as the characters’ struggles relating to the real world and the dichotomy between real and virtual. I prefer to focus on subtler themes, as most anyone cold point out the prominent themes. One of those subtler themes is power, or in our characters’ cases, powerlessness.
This is most prominently depicted in the original Aincrad arc. The entire series is launched so powerfully through this arc, one could argue its entire success is due to the depiction of the events of Aincrad. And a big part of that arc, though it’s not always obvious, is the idea of how powerless these poor 10,000 people are. They went to play a game, free from the troubles of life, only to find themselves trapped in a dangerous world that could spell death for any of them more readily than the real world they left behind. This weighs heavily on the viewer. For one thing, most of us have played MMORPGs at some point, and we understand what going into it means: fun and release. Suddenly that’s turned on its head, and we can easily imagine what these characters must feel like. And we know what their choices are in order to deal with this dire situation. The first is to strengthen themselves and attempt to clear the game. The second is to sit back and make a life for themselves away from danger, relying on others to clear the game. Neither options presents a very glowing future. On the one hand, we all know how “risky” it is to be the first to go into new levels of a game. You usually die. A lot. In Sword Art Online’s case, that simply translates to dying very easily. And that’s it for you. It feels rather hopeless–unless you find a way to gain a lot of power. The other option is to sit back and make a life for yourself the best you can, hoping others will more ably undertake the task of clearing the game than you have chosen to do. And most of those people we encounter in the story seem fairly at ease. But when Kirito and Asuna struggle with this concept, hoping to simply live in love and peace with each other, Asuna realizes the truth of this: their physical bodies back in the real world can’t continue like this indefinitely. Waiting on others seems as hopeless as risking your life on the front lines.
Hence the idea of powerlessness. Why seek power in the first place? Usually one might think that’s to gain something that other people can’t have, but ultimately it’s because one doesn’t want to experience powerlessness. If life is easy and we’re left to live our lives, this isn’t an issue. But when forces press upon our lives and environment, as is the situation with these characters, we’re faced with our own powerlessness, and you have to make a choice. Usually that choice involves a cost. To continue in powerlessness, you leave your fate in the hands of others. Most people are uncomfortable with this idea. But to add power seems extremely difficult. It involves immense sacrifices of time at best, and life at the worst, with all manner of unpleasant or frustrating sacrifices in between. This is absolutely the difficult choice these characters are faced with. It’s extremely relatable. While we’re rarely faced with such dire situations, it puts a spotlight on this idea of powerlessness by setting the story in this unhappy situation. I could dig down into this idea further, but for the sake of brevity I’ll simply scratch the surface of it with the above, and leave further exploration to another time and place.
Something that’s very unexpected in this anime is how sad it is. This ties in a lot with what I was just discussing above. Confronting these realities is a big deal in this show, and all too often the outcomes are unbelievably sad. From Sachi right away in S1 to Sinon’s devastating struggles and Yuuki’s desperate and terminal situation in S2, and finally Asuna’s separation from Kirito in the third season, there’s a crap ton of moments where all you can do is cry for these characters. Yuuki’s situation hurts the most. Sinon’s situation is really sad too, but it resolves well. But I think the whole honeymoon section involving Yui is the second saddest. We do get Yui back later, so it’s not her disappearance that’s ultimately so sad. It’s all that goes on around it. This part of the show is already tugging on your heart in so many ways. You don’t want it to end. Then it’s impacted by the strange and tragic events with Yui. When you’re watching it the first time, of course you don’t realize Yui will return later, other than the hope Kirito provides by saving her data to his NerveGear locally. It’s all just a really heavy emotional rollercoaster through that whole section.
Why is it unexpected? Because this is fantasy, or a type of isekai, and doesn’t particularly present itself as sad. It’s adventure and a little romance, all clad with beautiful artwork. It doesn’t feel like it should be super sad. I’ve wondered while watching SAO if the whole series isn’t simply a great artistic outcome that bloomed from a messy and unfocused set of themes and plot lines that happened to all work out. Almost like it’s great by accident! But I don’t want to make that accusation, as I cannot be sure of it, and I don’t want to take anything away from it by doing so. The train wreck of S3 almost brings me to that conclusion, but I refuse to rush to judgement. But it’s this unexpected sadness that permeates a lot of the show that chiefly makes me wonder about that. I will simply say that the sadness is an unexpected artistic touch, and it tugs at your heart a lot of times during the show, making the experience more heartfelt and therefore more memorable. It really does end up being one of the sadder animes you’ll ever see.
Music! One of the most engaging audio-visual experiences you’ll ever have in anime is right here in this series. I mentioned the theme titled “Swordland” above. It’s probably one of the most well-known musical passages in anime. Go find it somewhere and listen to it. You’ll recall so many of the best scenes in the show. When you hear this play, you know stuff’s about to go down! I am less familiar with all the other pieces, but generally the music always seems to complement the scenes very effectively. You don’t see this a ton in anime, as music so often feels like an afterthought. I like to point at Akame ga Kill! as one of the best examples of music working well with the visuals, but SAO might be even better. The producers obviously made music more of a priority than usual, which I most appreciate. I don’t know how popular LiSA was before she worked on this series, but they sure stuck with her. I believe she writes all the OP and ED music for every season. I have to say I’m not a big fan of these songs, but I know she’s quite popular in the anime music world, and I can’t take anything away from that. The songs themselves are pretty well-known in animedom.
Why is SAO often so controversial? I don’t think there’s any one specific reason. It could be because this show does feel like it’s all over the place sometimes, like what I mentioned about the sadness popping up unexpectedly. People might say it’s overdramatic. I can understand that a little. Another source of confusion might simply be who this show is directed at. If it’s directed at teenage audiences, there’s a number of scenes that are very adult in nature that make you really wonder about who the target audience is. S1 will leave you scratching your head about this at times. Not to mention the themes are quite weighty despite the outward appearance of simple adventure in this anime. It could even be about the artwork. It’s is a little unusual looking at times!
There are certainly other reasons people might feel strongly one way or the other about this series. But if I had to be brave and head out to the front lines myself, I would venture to say that it’s because of the special relationship between Kirito and Asuna. Whatever form our responses might take, their relationship evokes strong feelings inside us. Those might be very negative or very positive. But I think the reason is this: how strange and unbelievable it must feel to have the chance to fight alongside the one you love in battle, triumphing over every enemy with that special person. Every gamer can appreciate his or her comrades, but to imagine yourself in these characters’ situation, and to have your life’s love there with you at your side, fighting for the same good you’re fighting for, that’s epic. It’s an extremely beautiful idea. Or it could be. Some people might recoil in horror from this idea, for any number of legitimate reasons. But most would be thrilled in a new and special way at the thought of having this chance. That might be just from the sheer joy of the idea. I would even totally understand if one was so envious of Kirito and Asuna’s situation that it would paint this whole anime in a negative light for them! But from my perspective, if I were forced into such a situation, nothing would motivate me more than the one I love choosing to fight alongside me. I don’t think there would even be a word to describe how overjoyed that would make me feel. And I think it’s this kind of powerful response that their relationship evokes in viewers that causes the great contention between like and dislike for this show.
But I love this series. I haven’t seen all the side stories or movies as I write this, but I definitely plan to. I do think series can go on too long, and SAO almost did, as indicated by the messy finish. But I cannot help but feel the same excitement for this series even now that I felt when I first watched it, and every time I rewatch it. It’s a powerful work. Whether your opinions of it are positive or negative, that fact cannot be denied. Through all the twists and turns and even some of the confusion it creates, you always know that Kirito and Asuna will always be together. And you know that the friendships they made along the way will last forever. They have shared things that no one else will ever share. And that is special. Sword Art Online is special, and always will be.
Opine to me! This is a controversial show, if I hadn’t said that already! Thanks for reading through to the end of this review. I know it was long. There’s so much to observe and take note of in this series however, I feel like I only touched on a handful of what I could have! Well, feel free to fill in the gaps or call me crazy or pronounce me a genius. I love to hear all honest opinions!